Animal Actors


Since the development of the star system, cinema has presented four types of screen actors, animal or human: screen icons, performers who are so universally recognized and loved that their identities entirely transcend the star system as well as individual films or genres of films and who come to stand for film itself; stars, relatively few in number and broadly known beyond any one film for the particular personalities they continually display in principal protagonists' roles; character or bit players, often eccentric and bearing especially discernible physical characteristics, who play secondary roles of significant import for the plot; and extras, who are typically massed in crowds or in nondescript background parts without character names and typically without individual consequence for the plot.

There have been four principal animal icons since the birth of film—vastly circulated and deeply memorable screen creatures even when they were not authentic animals in real life: Leo the Lion (the roaring trademark of MGM since 1928); King Kong (the animated model star of the film of the same name, 1933); Mickey Mouse, first seen in Steamboat Willie (1928), who reaches his apotheosis when he congratulates Leopold Stokowski for his competence in conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Fantasia (1940); Toto, the canny Norwich terrier in The Wizard of Oz , who, by pulling away the curtain from a frantic little man, reveals not only the artifice of the Emerald City but also the artifice of cinema. The mere invocation of the names of these screen animals induces a full range of imaginary connections to image, behavior, character, and the viewer's recollection. Leo the Lion stands out among studio logos, gazing as he does beyond the screen into spectatorial space.

The great animal stars certainly include Rin Tin Tin (1918–1932), a German shepherd pup found by an American soldier during World War I in Lorraine and named after a French children's puppet. Rin Tin Tin was brought to America and began work at the nearly bankrupt Warner Bros. studio on The Man from Hell's River (1922). His agile and athletic performance was so wildly popular with audiences—he received thousands of fan letters every week—that he is often credited with saving the studio from bankruptcy. Also unusually celebrated was Trigger (1932–1965), the golden palomino ridden by Roy Rogers in all of his thirty-three films and lengthy television series (1951–1957). The onscreen relationship between Rogers and this horse was so affectionate that it formed much of the basis for the oft-told joke that a cowboy "loves his horse more than his woman"—although in Rogers's case, his spouse, Dale Evans, was almost never far from his side, secure on her own mount, Buttermilk.

Other animal stars include Lassie, the collie heroine of Lassie Come Home (1943, trained by Rudd Weatherwax), a beloved family dog who is sold to relieve poverty; the much re-created stallion protagonist of Black Beauty (1910, 1921, 1933, 1946, 1971, 1994), who in the

Courage of Lassie (1946), with Elizabeth Taylor.
1994 remake (under the horsemaster Vic Armstrong and the trainer Rex Peterson) speaks English with Alan Cumming's voice; The Black Stallion, played by a horse named Cass-Ole in the 1979 film, who gamely manages to survive a shipwreck and being marooned on a desert island. Other memorable stars of the animal world are the lovable killer whale from Free Willy (1993), assisted in his performance by the effects supervisor Walt Conti; the sad and noble Skye terrier hero, trained by John Darlys, in Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961), so loyal to his old master that he persists in sleeping upon the dead man's grave; Francis the Talking Mule, who from 1950 through 1955 goes to college, the races, and West Point, covers the Big Town, and joins the WACs, speaking believably wherever he goes, thanks to Dave Fleischer's timing corrections; Bonzo the athletic chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo (1951), bravely learning the difference between right and wrong from Ronald Reagan; Kevin DiCicco's Buddy, the golden retriever basketball prodigy who stars in Air Bud (1997); the English sheepdog who, supervised by William R. Koehler, stumbles and bounds through The Shaggy Dog (1959); the various nonfleshly, anthropomorphized, puppeted, or painted creatures in the pantheons of Jim Henson, Walt Disney, and Warner Bros. cartoons: Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, Mickey Mouse, Donald and Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, The Road Runner, Wile E. Coyote, Lady, and The Tramp.

Character or bit parts played by animals are legion and include Cheetah the chimp (played by Cheetah the chimp) in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932); Asta the wirehaired terrier (played by Asta the wire-haired terrier), famous for repeated appearances in the various Thin Man films (1934–1947) and also for playing George in Bringing Up Baby (1938), nemesis of the leopard (trained by Olga Celeste) who is Cary Grant's nemesis; the shrieking cockatiel in Citizen Kane (1941); the lethal panther (trained by Mel Koontz) in Cat People (1942); Pyewacket, Kim Novak's Siamese cat familiar in Bell Book and Candle (1958); the snarky black raven confederate of Julius Kelp in The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963); the two caged lovebirds around whom Hitchcock's The Birds swirl and flutter; the rats Ben and Socrates (trained by Moe and Nora Di Sesso) in Willard (1971); the homesick humpback whales in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986); the domesticated rabbit that gets cooked in Fatal Attraction (1987); the killer poodle in Hulk (2003). In the musical Summer Stock (1950), a mixed-breed chorus of singing dogs backs up Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers in "Heavenly Music." In AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), a penguin does a walk-on, first as a potentially lurking, alien presence and then as its actual benign self.

Bart the Bear (1977–2000) was a genuine screen personality. He staunchly antagonized Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge (1997) and appeared as "the bear" in ten other films: Windwalker (1980), The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), The Great Outdoors (1988), L'Ours (1988), White Fang (1991), The Giant of Thunder Mountain (1991), On Deadly Ground (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), Walking Thunder (1997), and Meet the Deedles (1998). A better comedian than Bart is the horse who gets knocked cold by a punch in the teeth in Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974). In L'Atalante (Jean Vigo, 1934), a pregnant cat drops a litter early in the film, and as the story sails on, the kittens attach themselves to virtually all the characters and every object that can be pounced or cuddled upon. In Le Grand bleu ( The Big Blue , Luc Besson, 1988), a dolphin plays a deeply affecting and ethereal magical role, luring a heroic competitive diver to an undersea afterlife.

In the concluding sequence of Umberto D (Vittorio De Sica, 1952), a particularly affecting and variegated supporting performance is given by a fox terrier. Signior Umberto Ferrari (Carlo Battisti), the aging protagonist, has moved out of his lodgings with his dog, Flaik, under his arm. Lonely and facing death, Umberto rides the streetcar to an isolated district where he tries to convince a man and his wife to take the dog. Flaik is afraid of them, so Umberto moves on to a park at the edge of the city. Here, a little girl wants to take the dog but is forbidden to by her nursemaid. Umberto sneaks away, hiding just outside the park, but soon the dog comes trundling out, sniffs around, and finds his master. There seems no choice but suicide for them both. Umberto brings Flaik to a railway crossing and holds him in his arms as a train swiftly approaches. The dog whines in abject terror. Suddenly he flies off as the train whistles past. "Flaik!" cries the old man. By now, the dog is standing several yards away, and when Umberto walks up to him, Flaik retreats into the park. The camera views him now from ground level, a tiny waif among massive trees, terrified of the man who wanted to kill him. It takes several moments, with Umberto begging pathetically and urgently, before the dog finally relents and the two disappear together among the trees, friends again. Umberto holds up a pine cone and the loyal Flaik leaps in musical rhythm to snatch it.

Animal extras have populated many films, most typically as herds of cattle or buffalo (as in Dances with Wolves [1990]) or as horse teams who pull the Stagecoach (1939) or bear the weight of sheriff's posses, robbers ( The Great Train Robbery [1904]), or whooping Indians ( The Searchers [1956]). The stunt man Yakima Canutt's facility in working with equine extras to produce spectacular tumbles in fast chases is legendary. In Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), sheep come down with a mysterious belly-bloating condition. Elephants bear important human characters in ceremonial processions in both Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), the latter boasting a bevy of circus animals including, in bit roles, a terrier attached to Buttons (James Stewart) and an elephant so trusted by Angel (Gloria Grahame) that she places her face beneath its foot.

Unquestionably the most realistic performance given by an animal onscreen belongs to Mike the Dog as the neurotic border collie Matisse in the hilarious Down and Out in Beverly Hills (Paul Mazursky, 1986). Pampered, all-comprehending, drooping with self-hatred, but always happy to be on show—and far beyond the help of his expensive canine psychiatrist—this animal is the ultimate denizen of Hollywood.

SEE ALSO Nature Films

American Humane Association Web site. (accessed 28 November 2005).

Baker, Steve. Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity, and Representation . Champaign/Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Burt, Jonathan. Animals in Film . London: Reaktion Books, 2002.

Chris, Cynthia. Watching Wildlife . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Eyman, Scott. The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926–1930 . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997, and Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Lippit, Akira Mizuta. Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood . New York: Grove Press, 1997.

Wolfe, Cary, ed. Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Murray Pomerance

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